Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Casting the Hook

or, But "N.W.P" Doesn't Mean Anything...

Last night was the first meeting of the Novel Writing Practicum (NWP) I am facilitating at the Muse Ink Writing Loft. I hope there will be many more like it.

We focused on the "hook" -- the thing that grabs readers by the throat and forces them to turn the page and keep reading. As literary agent Chip MacGregor recently informed attendees at the American Christian Writer's Conference in Grand Rapids, he can tell in 30 seconds or less whether or not a writer can write, whether or not that writer has a unique "voice," and whether or not he wants to spend any more time with that writer's submission.

(Incidentally, Chip's blog is practically a must-read for anyone hoping to get an agent or to get published. It's full of great information AND he invites readers to send him their publishing industry questions, which he then actually takes the time to answer. If you ever wanted to ask a working agent something, it's an excellent resource.)

Back to hooks...

Since hooks are so important to a work, the first meeting of every month is going to be dedicated to focusing on them and improving them. Hooks aren't just for introducing the book, remember. Every chapter needs one to keep the reader turning pages.

We read the opening paragraphs of current fiction and non-fiction bestsellers (including "Twilight," "Dead Dark," "Horse Soldiers," "My Sister's Keeper," and others), discussed what hooks really worked, and analyzed both how and why they worked. It is amazing how quickly the authors got to the point of getting the reader's attention. All did it within the first 200 words.

Interestingly, the one hook that flat-out DIDN'T work for any of us is a number one bestseller -- and the latest installment of a very long series. We all agreed that it was sophomoric and overwritten. It would have never passed muster as a first work. It just goes to show how important an established readership is to an author's continued success.

Participants then read the opening paragraphs of their current projects, and we analyzed them solely for their "hook" value. A rule of the NWP is that trashing is patently not allowed. But neither is saying that something is "perfect."

"But what if it is perfect?" someone might ask.

We'll cross that bridge when we come to it...

I believe that every participant received targeted, valuable feedback. Every writer heard specific suggestions for how to hook her readers faster, and make them want to find out more. All of the suggestions were framed in such a way that held the original work in high regard.

We went a bit over time (First night. Lots of "new business" to attend to and explanations of How This Will Work. It was to be expected.), but I believe it was productive. Though I didn't workshop the hook from my novel, after going through the process with the others, I believe I can be as tough on the material as I need to be. I can already see the flaws -- which I couldn't see at this time yesterday. Better yet, I know how to fix them.

If you're a writer, I challenge you to engage in a little "Hook Homework" yourself:

* Read the first page of 5 or 6 current bestsellers in a row. Ideally, read them out loud.
* Write down what does and does not work for you.
* Analyze what the writer is doing to force you, the reader, to turn the page and commit to reading more.
* Read the first three or four paragraphs of your current project.
* Subject it to the same analysis. If you realize that the "exciting part" hasn't happened yet, skip to where it does happen, read it, and find a way to make it part of the hook.

Remember -- if you don't hook the readers and make them keep reading, all of your brilliant writing later on will go unread. Words require readers' eyes to dust them off and keep them alive!

In Other News

I have been asked to conduct another month-long Writer's Workshop similar to the one I did in June at the Coloma Library. We're currently discussing dates and times. It would be great to do so -- the venue is close enough that it wouldn't require air travel or hotel stays: it's a possibility packed with plusses!

Poor Cassandra was looking forward to playing in the park last night while I conducted the N.W.P. Unfortunately, she got sick at the last minute and spent the evening wrapped in a blanket on the couch. Poor kid. I felt terrible about having to leave her at home while I went to the Practicum.

The Marathon Man screenplay keeps not being done. Every day for the past week, Paul and I have said, "this is the last day." And every day we're wrong. It's close... very close. And it's good (thank heaven). But it's not yet done. Perhaps today will be the day I can do the Happy Dance that accompanies the completion of every project.

The Sample Chapter of the Marathon Man's book proposal also continues to evade completion. At this point, it's overburdened with too many words. I must be even more merciless in my role as Editor and Chief Word Executioner.

Finally, I've been toying with thoughts of entering the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest held every year over Labor Day. I have an idea I've been shelving that would lend itself well to such an endeavor. At the very least, it would kick my butt and force me to spend three days wrestling with the project. At the end of the weekend, I'd know for sure whether or not the idea was worth dedicating any more time to...

That does it! I've talked myself into it...

Wait: Create a novel in 72-hours? What am I thinking?!